cast: John Travolta, Connie Neilsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Brian Van Holt

director: John McTiernan

94 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Icon DVD Region 2 rental and retail
Also available to rent or buy on video

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Rob Marshall

When a US Army Rangers’ training exercise in Panama ends with several deaths, including that of much-feared instructor Sergeant West (Samuel Jackson), local base chief, Colonel Styles (Tim Daly), calls upon ex-military DEA guy, ‘civilian’ Tom Hardy (John Travolta), to help the provost marshal Captain Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen, from Scott’s Gladiator, and De Palma’s Mission To Mars, both 2000) investigate the case. They question the only survivors, Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and Kendal (Giovanni Ribisi), but get conflicting stories from both sides. The plot involves drug smuggling, racism and mistaken identity, and a supposed conspiracy deep within the armed forces, but hardly any of this detailing makes sense or holds your attention, as it should…
Whatever happened to John McTiernan? The man behind outstanding films like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), The Hunt For Red October (1990), and even Last Action Hero (1993) – which certainly had amusing moments, despite being a critical and box-office flop – is not the director he used to be. Lately, his career’s gone from bad to worse – with massively disappointing remakes of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and Rollerball (2001). Basic is a terrible waste of a potentially great cast. With Taye Diggs and Harry Connick Jr among its supporting players for the re-teaming of Pulp Fiction’s Jackson and Travolta, this must have seemed like a brilliant idea on paper – yet, since they’re only on screen together briefly, there’s no attempt here to make use of the two Hollywood superstars’ macho chemistry.

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And poor Nielsen isn’t given enough to do except look surprised – as when her smug boss gives control of the military investigation over to Travolta’s really annoying cop character Hardy, or furious when she finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him. Nielsen is actually much better in William Friedkin’s The Hunted (2002).
With scenes of distrust between wannabe US rangers in mock combat boiling over into betrayals and shootouts, Basic fails to evoke the tension or drama of the similar training mission in Walter Hill’s eerie Southern Comfort (1981), while its jungle setting lacks the conviction or atmosphere of McTiernan’s own Predator, or even Medicine Man (1992). If there’s a single distinguishing characteristic for this picture it’s probably blandness. Basic seems to be one of those unfortunate projects that suffered from producer interference (four names share the screen credit) or, maybe, it was obviously in dire need of a script doctor to untangle the threads of screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s confusing multiple viewpoints on both murder mystery and military conspiracy, but no re-writer could be found in time to match the ever busy actors’ schedules. Whatever the reasons, in this case, the movie lacks sufficient action or suspense to qualify as either an action thriller or intriguing drama, and is merely yet another one of those sadly over-budgeted American timewasters that could have been far better, if only…
The DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby digital 5.1 sound. Disc extras include two featurettes: A Writer’s Perspective, with a few interesting comments on the creative process by screenwriter Vanderbilt; and offbeat making-of promotional piece, Director’s Design. There’s an uneven, sometimes boring (it must be said), commentary by McTiernan, plus trailers and TV spots.